Romania has a large and growing bear problem, reports Doug Saunders in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Elsewhere in Europe, bears are almost non-existent. In 2006, Germany saw its first wild bear in 170 years, which the media named Bruno and became a major celebrity until he was abruptly shot by hunters last June.
But Romania, which last year became the European Union’s newest member (along with neighbouring Bulgaria), is the lone European country that is experiencing the opposite problem.
“It’s fair to say that our bear population is well above its natural level, and it is increasing far too fast,” says Serban Negus, who studies bears for the Brasov-based Forest Research Institute.
Romania’s central forests and mountains are home to between 5,000 and 5,500 bears, by Mr. Negus’s estimate, and that population is growing by 10 per cent, or about 500 bears, every year. This has led to a series of unfortunate encounters between humans and bears….
Under the 34-year dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, bears were kept safe: He made bear hunting a serious offence to make the entire bear population available for hunting parties he held for his close friends and comrades. As a result of that legacy, Romanians remain wary of bear hunting….
Romania’s bear population is kept in check through an ingenious policy devised by the government: It allows wealthy Europeans, especially Germans and Italians, to hunt the bears during seasons that span half the year.
In exchange for this rare hunting privilege, they pay a licence fee of between $15,000 and $23,000 per bear, depending on its size. That has been good for the tourist industry, and it’s brought badly needed revenues to this poor country’s coffers.
But the policy simply hasn’t produced results. Romania allows just over 300 bear licences each year, which isn’t enough according to biologists, and most years it hasn’t managed to sell all of them.
For lack of enough old Ceausescu hunting cronies or rich foreign hunters to keep the bear population under control, some conservationists have proposed resettling them in the now Braunbärrein forests of Central and Western Europe.
But the logistics are extremely difficult: Aside from the mountainous regions of the Alps and Carpathians, where bears tend to thrive, there are few places in Europe where they wouldn’t be poking their snouts in human settlements.